1. Can you tell us a bit about your books?
The first time I tried Nanowrimo was in the fall of 2007, when I used it to write the first draft of the novel that would eventually become The Secret of the Nightingale Palace. I had already published my first novel, If You Lived Here, and a memoir, The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam, and this idea of writing a first draft in a month was a new prospect for me. I found that Nanowrimo helped me quite a bit in just getting the basic form of the book down on paper (well, on computer). I can’t say, for sure, that it sped things up for me (it still took many, many drafts to complete the book), but it did help me to see where I was going a bit more clearly. I find that it works very well for fiction. For nonfiction, I haven’t tried it. I wrote my second book of nonfiction, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam the old fashioned way, just by slowly working my way forward.
2. When did you first decide you wanted to become a published author?
I’ve loved writing since I was a little kid, when I wrote a lot of “books” about farm families and horses. I didn’t really think about traditional publication for a long time. After college I became a journalist, then eventually started thinking about long-form writing—books. I took me a very long time to really believe that I could complete a whole book. If you’ve only written short things, it’s hard to see how you could complete something so long. I think that’s part of the reason Nanowrimo is helpful. It encourages writers to think in terms of a whole book.
3. How did you find out about Nanowrimo?
My son’s fifth grade class was participating in the program (in a shortened version), so I decided to do it with him. That November, we’d go to cafes together at night and he’d drink hot chocolate and I’d drink coffee. He was writing a novel about a guy named Bob and I was writing a novel about a grandmother and granddaughter named Goldie and Anna.
4. How much planning did you do before starting Nanowrimo?
Almost none. I just had an idea in my head and started writing. I do a huge amount of research for all of my books, including my novels, but I don’t research during the Nanowrimo month. I just write and keep a list of things I’d like to learn more about later. That said, I teach a class at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington that follows Nanowrimo. The class meets for the entire fall semester, so I have my students begin doing research and outlines and character development (all sorts of stuff like that) starting in August. By the time they start writing their books in November, they’ve got a lot of material to help them move forward.
5. What was your first Nanowrimo experience like?
Fantastic. I was so happy to have a rough draft at the end of November. After that, I let it sit for a long while before I read it again. Once I picked it back up, I was happy to see that it wasn’t all bad. It helps to have very low expectations because you’re not going to write a masterpiece in a month. I remember that the people at Nanowrimo sent out a congratulatory message at the end of November to all of the “winnners” (winners are people who finish their 50,000 words in the month.) It basically said, “Congratulations! You’ve just completed a not-awful novel.” And that about sums it up.
6. What advice would you give people attempting Nanowrimo this year?
1. When you get bored, make a change. Bring in a new character, make an old character move or change in some way. Shake things up.
2. Get off to a strong start because things will slow you down later in the month (Thanksgiving). I try to go into Thanksgiving week way ahead, so I don’t absolutely have to get much, if anything, written. That way I can relax.
3. Don’t read over what you’ve read when you start writing again after taking a break. Doing that will just freeze you up because you’ll see all the problems. If you must, go back a page or two to get the feel of what you’re characters are up to. Then move forward.
One more thing. Nanowrimo is a fantastic community, but don’t let yourself get so swept up in chatting and investigating the site that you lose time writing. Focus on your own novel, not on what other people are writing and saying about theirs, or even what they’re saying about Nanowrimo in general.
7. What are your plans this coming November?
I realized after doing about 5 or 6 Nanowrimos in a row that I needed to take some years off. I have a backlog of “rough drafts” and I don’t need any more right now. I need to do the work to make those drafts better. On the other hand, one great thing that I’ve done is write the same book twice (I’ve done that several times). My first year, I wrote a draft of my book The Secret of the Nightingale Palace from the granddaughter Anna’s point of view. A year later, I wrote it all again, this time from the grandmother Goldie’s point of view. That really deepened the narrative in interesting and unexpected ways. Eventually, for the finished book, I incorporated passages from both.
This November, I’m working on my new, as-yet-untitled novel about an American family in Budapest. I’m trying to finish it, so I’m skipping Nanowrimo because I don’t want anything to distract me.
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Dana Sachs is the author of two novels, If You Lived Here and The Secret of the Nightingale Palace (both published by William Morrow) and two works of nonfiction, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam (Beacon Press) and The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam (Algonquin Books). She writes the monthly “Lunch with a Friend” column for SALT, an arts and culture magazine in Wilmington, North Carolina, and she teaches writing classes at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.